Gijs Frieling says his large-scale works deal with ‘controversial, often religious, topics.’ The artist is currently finishing another huge and highly decorative mural – one which references, amongst other things, James Cameron’s Avatar. Images on his site reveal his assistants to be carrying out the work, leading us to question Gijs’ views on ownership in art (as well as why he started painting, and why he’s so obsessed with Donald Judd)…
Why did you start painting? And why on walls?
In art school, I was brought up with the idea that a contemporary artist has a concept first and secondly searches for the medium that fits the idea best. I have tried this, but found out it was not working for me: I wanted to paint. I decided that I wanted to feel free to use all of the idea’s I liked, but that I would always paint them. From the start, I have been interested in located art – art that was made for a certain place. A temporary mural can be a huge work about a topic for which I would never get a commission, or with an extravagant decorative force that can only be made because it will disappear again.
And you work on these pieces with assistants, who often have a large say in how your work looks. We’re interested in your thoughts on ownership in art. When is it no longer your work and in fact someone else’s?
My work is about handwriting but not necessarily my own. I work with assistants because I want my work to be open to others. I think painting is always about how we see things, (photography can never do that). The focus on the individual position of the artist is extremely overrated – it is the main problem in contemporary art. Both aspects of autonomy, the authorship and the handwriting, are deliberately unclear in my work. I don’t want to own my work, I want to give it to others.
Your work is decorative, highly detailed, full of what could be defined as Folk Art. How is your work received in ‘high art’ circles, which sometimes dismiss art in this form? Are those even the circles you’re interested in being a part of?
For a lot of people in the art world it is not easy to relate to my straightforward decorative work. In Switzerland, where I recently made a large mural, this was even more confusing because everyone has a grandmother or an uncle who does this kind of decorative painting on furniture. The ‘high-art’ world – of which I am on the one hand definitely a part of – actually has little to do with ‘art’. As Gerhard Richter said: “The art world is a social game, not in any way different than the world of cat-breeding”. I want, like most serious artists, to make my work for everyone who enjoys it.
Your work is filled with plants, flowers in bloom, fruit, fish – a lot of the things to do with nature. Can you tell us why?
I like plants, birds and fishes because they are so objective and selfless. A curator from Korea called my work a requiem – he saw the decorative order, the symmetry and the mirroring and repetition of elements as having to do with death. Nature in my work never grows out of hand – everything has its place. I paint flowers, birds and fishes according to self-invented but very strict prescriptions.
The artist, Donald Judd, appears regularly in your work (through words sometimes, and in the replicas you’ve produced), and yet your styles seem opposite. What is your fascination with him?
Donald Judd’s work is falsely understood as minimal. Judd was interested in the objective, empirical side of color and in the relation of art, architecture and society. I like artists who want to understand their work as a constituting part of human culture, like Joseph Beuys, Thomas Hirschhorn, Gilbert and George. On the other hand, Judd’s work is also (treated as) the extreme example of ‘autonomous art’, something I do not believe in at all. I made cardboard copies of his work, (first small and later also in real size), as a tribute, but at the same time to lift the works from their suffocating seriousness and loneliness.
What’s next for you?
I am finishing my new mural, Pizzeria Vasari, a personal art history from Tutankhamun to Dr. Manhattan, which opens on Sunday February 6th. Tomorrow, sculptor Ad de Jong and I are going to Walden Affairs, a new artist-run space in The Hague for which we are preparing a new collaborative work.